I don’t know if this is expected of all non-white readers, but in my experience as a South Asian person, I think a lot of people expect me to have read—if not loved—writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, and Kiran Desai, and more. So, it’s always awkward to admit that you’ve read very little of them, always for a class, and even if you’d read them outside of a class it would be a lie to say you loved them.
I would never dispute the literary quality of their work or the deep insight with which they construct their stories and characters, but as (yet another) huge change of “Do I get to stay in one place, or move back to a home I barely know despite always calling it ‘home’?” looms over me, I find that fiction like the ones penned by the aforementioned authors feels at once, too much and not enough.
I’ve written previously about how fantasy has always been a metaphoric home for me, but lately I’ve been finding joy in contemporary fiction. I thought, perhaps, reading a YA book on similar topics may help me feel a little … “unlost”, shall we say? (I am trying very hard to not use the phrase “find myself” because firstly, I hate that phrase and secondly, I am trying to find something very much external to me.) I decided to try Mitali Perkins’ You Bring the Distant Near but despite the fact that I loved the characters and the manner in which they handled their various struggles, the book—like the ones I read in school and college—felt much too real and yet not at all similar to my own circumstances. Definitely the sign of a good book, just … not what I needed.
It was around this time that a friend forwarded an essay from Durga Chew-Bose’s book Too Much and Not the Mood. The essay is called “D as in” and is a thoughtful exploration of the power names hold, when they are unsaid and especially when they are said (correctly). I ended up buying and reading the entire collection of essays. And though Chew-Bose and I have completely different experiences, I realized that non-fiction—a category that in my eyes provides truths that are far more rigid than the ones in fiction—provided whatever intangible thing I keep looking for in stories about immigrants. I also remembered then that Scaachi Koul’s book One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter is another that touched me in the same way. Even Naben Ruthnum’s collection of essays Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race—which I love but have so many conflicting opinions on—was a comfort to read.
I have always used non-fiction as a way to check off some imaginary checklist. I have to read at least some non-fiction a year. To understand the world around me, to prove that I’m not, in fact, running away from my problems. If I felt homesick, however, I’d reach for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban or, more recently, the Six of Crows duology. It’s nice to know that I have far more options that I had previously realized. It’s nice to know these options won’t make me cry or stay up late with anxiety. It’s nice to have other hands to hold.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, Chew-Bose’s hand is waiting.